From War to Water Pacts In Turbulent South Asia

While world attention continues to focus mostly on the "hot spots" of violent conflict in Africa, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, two events of far-reaching significance for regional and international security recently took place in South Asia, without much notice outside the region. These events will not only affect the lives of more than 2 billion people far into the future, but they will also have substantial implications for world peace.

On Nov. 29, 1996, China and India - the two Asian giants who fought a brief but bloody border war in the Himalayas in 1962 - signed an agreement that includes confidence-building measures between them in the military arena. In particular, Article I of the agreement stipulates that "Neither side shall use its military capabilities against the other side."

A step away from war

If this agreement holds, two of the largest armies in the world - one equipped with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and the other with the capability to acquire them on short notice - may never again confront each other on the battlefield.

Under a second agreement on maritime transportation, the former enemies agreed to extend "most favored" treatment to each other's ships in their respective seaports. This agreement may lead to growing commercial interaction and trade between two of the largest and fastest growing economies in the world.

Within two weeks of the China-India agreement, on Dec. 12, Bangladesh and India signed a 30-year agreement on sharing water from the Ganges River, settling what had been an acrimonious, two-decade-long dispute between these neighbors. Under this agreement, Bangladesh is guaranteed a larger share of the Ganges water than it had received under a 1977 pact, which expired in 1982 and was not renewed.

Expectations have risen that there could be further cooperation between the two countries on such water-related issues as hydroelectric power, irrigation, and augmentation of the Ganges flow. Future accords may also address problems created by migration, environmental degradation, and separatist movements in the adjoining regions of both countries.

These bilateral agreements together could pave the way for integrated development of the larger Ganges-Brahmaputra-Barak (GBB) river basin, which is shared by Bangladesh, Bhutan, China (Tibet), India, and Nepal. The prospects for peace and prosperity in South Asia are closely tied to cooperative development and the use of shared rivers in an efficient, equitable, and sustainable manner.

With an area less than one-fifth the size of the United States but with twice its population, the GBB basin is one of the richest areas of the world in terms of the exploitable potential of its rivers for water supply, irrigation, fisheries, industrial production, hydropower generation, and navigation. It is also one of the least developed regions, where millions continue to languish in abject poverty and suffer from severe environmental degradation.

Close to 500 million people currently live in the basin; by the year 2000 this population is estimated to reach 625 million, with the prospect of redoubling again before stabilizing by the middle of the next century.

Parts of the basin suffer from sporadic violence among different ethnic and religious groups - demands for autonomy and separatist rebellions that are often fueled by conflicts over natural resources such as land, water, forests, and minerals. Thus the recent Bangladesh-India agreement needs to be extended to include all the countries sharing the basin.

India-Pakistan precedent

At this juncture, it is important to recall that on the other side of the subcontinent a water-sharing agreement between India and Pakistan has existed since 1960. Brokered by the World Bank, the Indus Water Treaty ended a dispute that began in 1948 and threatened to engender armed hostility between the then newly independent states.

While the treaty did not lead to optimal development of waterways, both countries have continued to abide by its provisions despite two subsequent wars and intermittent bloodshed over Kashmir.

After the recent Bangladesh-China-India agreements, it is possible to hope that someday all the trans-boundary water resources of South Asia may be developed and shared in a cooperative manner for the benefit of all inhabitants. This beginning of a march toward peace and prosperity in the region should be applauded and supported by the international community.

* Arun P. Elhance is the program director for research on global environmental change at the Social Science Research Council in New York.

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